The bits-and-pieces time management method

Over the last year I’ve become interested in finding ways of being more productive. This has in part been forced on me by a change of job (becoming what I’ve called an interstitial scholar) with a greatly lengthened commute; but it has its own intrinsic interest, if kept under control. And I seem to have settled into a way of managing time and energy which hacks together two-and-a-half existing approaches. Since it’s a New Year, full of good intentions, I thought it worth sharing, just in case any element of it helps anyone else as much as it does me.

By Sun_Ladder at Wikimedia Commons
By Sun_Ladder at Wikimedia Commons

The element I found first was the Pomodoro Technique. At the beginner level, this is an incredibly simple way of managing one’s attention by dividing it into up into short bursts of 25 minutes (the Pomodori) separated by a five minute break. These are grouped again into cycles of four Pomodoro-plus-breaks, each cycle then separated by a longer break. I don’t propose to go into the detail here; but the principle is that the 25-minute period roughly matches most people’s capacity for sustained concentration on a single task.

I, like many people, used to sit down and simply plough through a task for two or three hours at a stretch, and I took the time spent in a sitting position as a proxy measure of concentrated effort. However, the evidence before and after of what I actually got done showed me how ineffective the former approach had been. The technique only works, however, if once you press the button on the timer (yes, you need a timer, available as an (free) app in Chrome), you cannot stop, or allow yourself to be distracted by anything else at all other than the task you planned. The five minute breaks feel like a long time, and the Pomodori are merciless, but it has worked excellently for me.

Of course, the technique presupposes that you know which tasks you should best be doing at the moment you start the timer. Like most people, I had been used to keeping a to-do-list, and also to making plans to do large projects, but had never found a successful way of connecting the two processes. This tended to mean that my to-do list was never empty, and was often full of tasks that hung around, and which it was difficult to prioritise until they became urgent. And the big plans ? Because they were too general, I would have no real sense of how they were progressing until a deadline was on top of me, by which time it was rather too late.

Killing time at Belfast City Airport, I happened upon 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman, which I had finished before I arrived back at Gatwick. Two particular elements of Bregman’s approach to “getting the right things done” have been successfully bolted onto the Pomodoro Technique. First was the discipline of an annual review, not of individual projects but of priorities, which I applied to everything over which I had that kind of control. And so it includes the plans for academic research in the next twelve months, along with plans for the house, the garden,  learning some Spanish and so on. Once you have decided what is important for a period of time, it makes it much easier to resist the next tempting opportunity to write for someone else for free.

The second element of Bregman’s approach is where the 18 minutes comes in. Twice a day – once on the train in the mornings, and again on the way home – I look at the day as a whole. In the morning I look at the to-do-list and schedule the things for that day; and at the end of the day I look back, see what went well, and decide on the priorities for the next day or two. Describing it this way sounds neater than it often is in practice, and Bregman gives some useful advice on how to manage the to-do-list (including, very importantly, when to delete tasks.)

The most recent plank is one of my own devising, building on elements of the Pomodoro. After a while, I began to get a reasonable idea of how much effort certain tasks tended to take. This is mostly because the Pomodoro is not a measure of time spent, but of attention spent, which I find to be a more accurate yardstick.  I know that I can write about 200 words per Pomodoro, and read a certain number of pages of typical academic writing (say, for a review.) And I know that in a typical week I can fit in a certain number of Pomodori (mostly on the train.) And so it was a short step from there to a simple planning sheet in which the priorities expressed each year are broken down into projects, which are then broken into tasks, with a certain number of Pomodori allocated to each task in each month. So far, the predictions are more or less matching the actual time spent but if it doesn’t, there is a means of rescheduling without throwing another project into difficulty.

Most recently I came across the notion of decision fatigue and the idea that the cognitive resources that we have in any one day for concentrated thought and good decision-making are finite. I’ve made sure that not all my time is booked, since in the course of a working week I need some working time in which I can plough through the more routine work that doesn’t demand much heavy cognitive lifting. I’m finding it very useful to think in terms of packets of concentrated mental effort, rather than in terms of time.

Are there any wider applications of this ? One may be that no one complete off-the-shelf time management system is likely to fit any one person perfectly; and so rather struggling to stay with the program 100%, it may be worth picking and choosing elements of different systems to suit your own needs. This process of hacking these systems together has taken me more than a year, and so there is something to be said for allowing your practice to evolve over time, rather than trying to find the magic formula that will transform your working practice overnight. Lastly, it has been very clear that the administrative overhead involved in managing these systems is far outweighed by the efficiency gains the rest of the time.

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